There are a couple ways to listen to the debut of Wolfgang Van Halen’s Mammoth WVH.
The first comes through expectations of the 30-year-old son of a man who changed rock guitar, and whose band was America’s answer to Led Zeppelin. The son is the third generation of a great musical family and the benefactor of a musical dynasty.
The second is a bit simpler: listening to a gifted multi-instrumentalist who toured with Creed spinoff Tremonti because it’s a style that suits him.
But through that prism, we might not care so much about his Mammoth WVH record, which comes out June 11. Maybe it’s fair, maybe not. But there’s just no getting past the last name, which creates expectations. Just ask Julian Lennon and Jakob Dylan.
We know Van Halen is talented. He’s a better all-around musician than most studio players on multiple instruments, which he shows on the record. As a player, he could be a one-man Wrecking Crew.
But maybe it’s that single-mindedness accounting for lack of creative tension or legitimate spark on Mammoth WVH. As bassist in the final version of Van Halen, he saw firsthand what the dynamics of a long relationship between songwriters could accomplish.
The younger Van Halen clearly understands what goes into a functionally solid rock song. But those songs are calculated; more Creed or Stone Temple Pilots than the “throw a match into the dynamite factory and see what happens” approach of Van Halen.
His music is accessible and sounds professional. But, other than putting all the logistics on his own shoulders, there’s not a lot of risk taking. That means there’s less reward.
The good news is some of the unfair expectations melt away after a couple listens, leaving a good rock record.
You may have already heard its best two songs because they’re singles: “Distance,” initially released late last year, as a tribute to Edward Van Halen after his death. It wasn’t initially planned for the album, but big hits have a way of changing plans.
The other single, “Don’t Back Down,” is a barn-burner with a big riff, a fun video and a stadium vibe (fitting the bill nicely when Mammoth WVH opens for Guns N’ Roses this summer). It’s hard not to bounce your head along to some seriously driving drumming (most multi-instrumentalists just manage on drums. Not Van Halen, who plays hard and checks all the drum boxes, just like Uncle Alex).
Album openers “Mr. Ed,” “Horribly Right,” and “Epiphany” follow the guitar rock map, with the right tone, layers and changes (and, yes, guitar solo hammer-ons, which only make sense). Wolfgang Van Halen’s vocals are fine but seem to lack the ability to make songs better. It’s clear he can sing with some feeling but is probably better suited to backing vocals.
After the aforementioned “Don’t Back Down,” “Resolve” shows some momentum, with a vocal hook that sticks. “You’ll Be the One” is average at best, though Van Halen dives into a guitar solo that makes one wonder why he isn’t a full-time guitarist (because he’s too good of a drummer?).
After the so-so “Mammoth,” on which Van Halen sings of having a mammoth weight on his shoulders, “Circles” features some of the best vocals on the record (and a vibe that grows on you). “The Big Picture” and “Think it Over” are fairly pedestrian, despite some effort at hooks.
But Van Halen comes back strong on “You’re to Blame,” again showing he’s no moonlighting drummer—or guitarist, as the lead scorches. The 30-year-old shows his roots on “Feel,” especially during the breakdown, which lets him prove he doesn’t just play so many instruments to pad a resume. “Stone” has some real heft to it, showing some of his best work comes when he leans on his guitar abilities.
Van Halen shows enough intrigue and ability to merit watching. The good news for him is that he can go in just about any direction he wants, not only because of his last name, but because he really is that good. He could be even better bouncing all that talent off a few contemporaries.
Follow music critic Tony Hicks at Twitter.com/TonyBaloney1967.